Though the multi-day, multi-stage, multi-genre music festival continues to thrive as a model for concert promoters, the touring guitar-rock-based version is on the brink of extinction in the US. Having wrapped up its 2015 run—a year more memorable for backstage sexual misconduct controversies than for musical triumphs—at the White River Amphitheatre in Auburn this past Saturday, the 21-year-old Vans Warped Tour now looks to an uncertain future as the last of the old-style corporate-driven road shows in the music industry.
Warped 2015’s woes began in earnest with the controversial decision to allow Jake McElfresh (also known as Front Porch Step) to perform at the tour’s Nashville stop on July 1. In January, the NY Times reported that McElfresh had been accused of engaging “in inappropriate text message and social media relationships involving at least half a dozen teenage girls, including, in some cases, the exchange of sexually explicit pictures.” Though no criminal charges have been filed, there was a loud public uproar in response to personal stories shared by young women, primarily on social media. Front Porch Step was dropped from the Warped 2015 line-up after, according to Billboard, a petition with “more than 13,000 signatures on a Change.org petition protested his involvement” with the tour. When McElfresh played an unannounced acoustic set on the tour’s Basement stage in Nashville, audience members heckled him— “Go rape some little girls!” “Fuck you, asshole!”—and artists (both on and off of the tour) protested the decision immediately. The excuse that the performance—which was unbilled and unpaid—was a therapeutic exercise in McElfresh’s recovery (it hasn’t been made clear what he’s meant to be recovering from), did not quiet the voices of protest.
"Tell me, how you would've handled it?” a fired-up Kevin Lyman asks me. Lyman is the tour’s founder and promoter, and on the final day of a 50+ day tour, it’s clear the veteran still has plenty of fight left in him. “If you were on the board of MusicCares, and a group of professionals such as therapists and counselors came to you, would you have considered it? I’d really like to know.”
I have no answer.
It’s clear Lyman has had his back against the wall this whole summer. In the past, the only flack he'd receive over social media was about the bands on a given year’s lineup.
Two weeks after the Front Porch Step fiasco, the singer of the band Slaves, Jonny Craig, was accused of sexually harassing the woman selling his band’s merch on the tour. (Craig has a history with drug abuse, and the possibility that he had relapsed also came to be part of the complaint against him.) The very same day, a “town hall” meeting of the tour’s road crew and personnel was arranged, and the band was suspended from the rest of the tour (and subsequently dropped by their booking agency; all their 2015 tour dates were cancelled).
"A lot of people showed up and they voiced their opinion,” says Buddy Neilsen of the band Senses Fail, which also played on this year's tour. “A lot of it was productive, and I thought people made a lot of good points. I thought it was cool of Jonny to show up and sort of be present for it. A lot of people were friendly with him, and knew he has an addiction, and wanted him to get help. Other people who don't know him, but [have been close to addicts in some way or another], stood up and said that Warped Tour isn't the best environment to get sober in."
It’s possible the drama that transpired this year was a wake-up call, rather than a sign of disaster. Then again, the challenges of presenting boundary-pushing entertainment for children seem to get more complicated all the time.
"I'm already working on Warped Tour for next year,” Lyman says. “And you know what? There are things that need to be fixed. [The community] needs to fix what due process is, what judicial systems are, and [we] have to stop putting false information on the internet,” said Lyman. “Slow down the social media blur. None of you are retaining. People can't retain the name of a band and the song they play. Brains have turned into a spaghetti sieve, as I like to say, shit just flows through them all of the time. Nothing’s sticking, except for a little bit of crust off of the sides. We're going to have to slow down technology. We have to slow it down, so it means something.”
When asked about what measures being taken for a safer, more stable tour, Lyman made the following surprising forecast:
“Next year we're going to have no kids on this tour. It’s going to be really tough if you want to be on this tour and are 21 and under. Whether it's the artist, crew… anyone.”
The way Nielsen sees things, the real power is ultimately in the hands of the audience.
“If kids like bands that talk about politics, if kids like bands that sound like this generation's watered down Limp Bizkit, that's what you're going to get,” he says. "It's really up to the 15-year-old kid deciding. That's why Warped Tour's cool, that's why I hope it continues, and that's why I want it to continue, so that it gives the future generation the ability to look at what their culture is, and decide whether they like it, want to be a part of it, or even change it. This feel like the year that we're transitioning into something... else. I don't know what it is, because you never know what it is, but I feel like we're transitioning to something.”